Sachin Katti is at the center of the action in terms of innovation in the radio access network (RAN). Katti is co-chair of the O-RAN Alliance Technical Steering Committee. In addition, he co-founded a startup called Uhana, which VMware purchased in July 2019. Uhana provides analytics for mobile network operators to gain insights from their 4G and 5G RANs. Katti is currently on staff at VMware as vice president of strategy, telco and edge cloud.
Speaking with FierceWireless recently, Katti said the uptake and interest in open RAN technology "has been pleasantly surprising.”
In terms of his current role at VMware, he said the virtualization of the radio access network is analogous to virtualization of the core network. “VMware has a pretty big footprint in the core,” said Katti. “What we’re seeing is a big transition; RAN functions are getting virtualized and containerized.”
He said telcos have the opportunity to build their RAN, core and operation support systems differently by using a horizontal cloud. “VMware is the leader in that virtualization space, building that horizontal telco cloud to handle core, edge and RAN functions on top of it,” said Katti.
Recently, the O-RAN Alliance and the Telecom Infra Project (TIP) announced a liaison agreement, which will hopefully prevent duplication of efforts.
“It will help align the two different efforts,” said Katti. “O-RAN focuses on architecture and interfaces, and TIP is focused on building white box designs based on O-RAN architecture and interfaces.”
TIP is actually agnostic about the specifications it uses for solutions that operators want. It works with various standards bodies. But its contract with the O-RAN Alliance allows for the sharing of information as well as joint testing and integration efforts.
TIP recently announced the launch of the Evenstar remote radio units (RRU) program. Partners Vodafone, Deutsche Telekom, Mavenir, Parallel Wireless, MTI and AceAxis are among those behind the effort. The Evenstar program is focusing on building general purpose RAN reference designs for 4G and 5G networks that are aligned with 3GPP and O-RAN Alliance specifications.
Katti said efforts through the O-RAN Alliance and TIP are providing new opportunities for contract manufacturers such as MTI, which have historically been invisible because they build radio hardware for bigger vendors such as Ericsson and Nokia. “They have RF IP, and now they’re seeing an opportunity to sell directly to operators rather than to a traditional channel like Ericsson and Nokia,” said Katti.
Open RAN Policy Coalition
In another move to consolidate open RAN efforts, in early May a new group — the Open RAN Policy Coalition — was formed by a who’s who list of tech players: AWS, AT&T, Cisco, Dell, Dish, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Qualcomm, Rakuten, Samsung, Verizon, VMWare, and World Wide Technology, to name a few. The coalition intends to advocate for government policy that helps drive open RAN adoption.
Just today, Nokia announced that it has joined the Open RAN Policy Coalition. Nokia was the first major vendor to join the O-RAN Alliance, and it is co-chairing the O-RAN Alliance workgroups that are defining the Open Fronthaul Interface and the Near Real-time RAN Intelligent Controller (RIC), which will help automate and optimize the network.
Politics and the RAN
Two or three years ago, it would have seemed implausible to think that U.S. politicians would be introducing bills related to specific wireless technology. But with the Trump Administration’s attacks on the Chinese vendors Huawei and ZTE, that is the current reality.
In January a bipartisan group of U.S. senators introduced legislation that would provide over $1 billion to invest in Western-based alternatives to Chinese vendors Huawei and ZTE. The legislation would require the Federal Communications Commission to direct at least $750 million, or up to 5% of annual auction proceeds from new auctioned spectrum licenses, to create an O-RAN research and development fund to spur open-architecture, software-based wireless technologies.
“Even I have been pleasantly surprised by the amount of attention for O-RAN, in 3 1/2 short years being part of U.S. policy.” said Katti.
A big part of the political push in favor of O-RAN stems from the fact that the United States doesn’t have a telecom vendor that is equivalent to Huawei, Ericsson or Nokia. But the momentum from groups like the O-RAN Alliance, TIP and the Open RAN Policy Coalition are likely to open the marketplace for startups. Because of hardware/software disaggregation, the economics are shifting, making it viable for smaller vendors to compete.